Stop me if you've heard this one before: a perfectly ordinary summer heat wave strikes across the U.S. and millions of people are without power at the worst possible time. It's something of an annual ritual at this point.
Americans sure are "frustrated" at the thought of experiencing triple-digit temperatures without basic modern conveniences like ceiling fans and air conditioning* but as usual they do not appear to connect the dots. The fundamental problem is that like so much of our infrastructure, the American power grid belongs in decrepit. We have first world prices and a third world grid. The outdated fossil fuel power generating stations look downright modern compared to the transmission system. So Americans – Woo! We're #1! U-S-A! U-S-A! – get to enjoy brown- and blackouts during the height of summer. You know, blackouts; like they have in Uzbekistan and Angola. But I'm sure there's nothing wrong with our grid – the power must be out because the lazy union linemen aren't fixing it. What's beige and sleeps four? The ComEd truck, amirite people? Ha!
I never had high hopes for the current President, but there was some talk during the 2008 election and transitional period about a "New New Deal" type stimulus in which billions would be devoted to the long overdue overhaul of our nation's crumbling infrastructure. It never fails to amaze me how easily most Americans can reconcile our wealth and self appointed greatest-country-ever status with the overall shabbiness of so much of their surroundings – the collapsing bridges, the antique power grid, the slowest-in-the-Western-world broadband internet infrastructure, the 19th Century rail system, the two generations old cellular network, the old (and increasingly privatized) water supply, and so on. Of course it didn't happen. As usual, the only thing we managed to do is fix and repave some highways. And we don't even do a very good job of that.
A summer power outage is neither unprecedented nor unexpected, but it is a very visible reminder of the way that our country as a whole is starting to reflect the saddest aspects of its crumbling cities – the sense that this place was shiny and new in the 1940s and 1950s and it has been all downhill since then. We used to be able to handle ideas like massive government projects (rural electrification, the Interstate Highway System, etc.) to improve our standard of living. Now we sit around waiting for Private Sector Santa to save us; he never quite gets around to it. The idea that we could publicly employ millions of people to make the country less like your grandmother's 100 year old house – the hoarder, not the sweet one with all the doilies – simply doesn't fly before. Even if one rejects Keynesian economics, you'd think there would be some appeal to the idea of not living in a shit hole.
I underestimate our capacity for self-loathing sometimes. Let's start a pool for the first internet hack to call this "Obama's Blackout", with bonus points for naming the first to make it explicitly racist.
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*How is Willis Carrier's birthday not a state holiday in the former Confederacy and the Southwest?